This judge was removed from the trial of police officer Jeronimo Yanez, who shot Castile during a routine traffic stop.
Two days after Independence Day, Philando Castile, his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter were driving home from the grocery store when they were pulled over in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota by local police officers. Officer Jeronimo Yanez approached the vehicle and asked Castile for his license and registration. Before the interaction went any farther, Castile did what any legal gun owner is expected to do – he informed Yanez that he was in possession of a weapon and told Yanez where the weapon was located. Despite the clear attempt on Castile’s part to avoid trouble, the mention of the weapon caused Yanez to panic, who then shot Castile seven times as he reached for his ID. A distraught Reynolds then live-streamed a video of the immediate aftermath on Facebook which showed her interacting with the armed officer as Castile slumped over, mortally injured. The killing immediately energized and angered African-American activists, particularly those working within the Black Lives Matter movement, while also leading to outrage from local and state attorneys and politicians.
Ramsey County Attorney, John Choi, announced this November that Yanez was to be charged with three felonies – one count of second-degree manslaughter and two counts of dangerous discharge of a firearm. At the time, Choi remarked that “I would submit that no reasonable officer knowing, seeing, and hearing what Officer Yanez did at the time would have used deadly force under these circumstances.” Last Monday, Yanez made his first appearance in court and postponed entering a plea as his attorneys filed to dismiss the case. Yanez’s attorneys argued that the case should be dismissed as Castile’s past marijuana use created “unreasonable risk,” making him responsible for his own death even though he had not used marijuana at the time of the shooting.
The judge presiding over the case was Ramsey County District Court Judge Edward Wilson, a graduate of Macalester College and the University of Minnesota Law School. An extremely qualified judge, Wilson had also previously worked for the Neighborhood Justice Center and the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis and even served as an international judge for the United Nations Mission in Kosovo in 2003. Chief Judge John Guthmann assigned Wilson, an African-American, to the case based on his availability and experience as Wilson is the “second most senior judge” in the district. Guthmann asserted that Wilson’s race played no role in assignment to the case.
Despite such assurances, it seems that Yanez’s attorneys didn’t like their chances with a black judge. Last Thursday, the Star Tribune reported that Yanez’s attorneys had filed a notice to remove Wilson from overseeing the case. The notice cited an obscure rule of Minnesota criminal procedures that gives attorneys the ability to ask for the removal of one assigned judge per case without needing to cite a reason. Such requests are automatically granted. One of the defense attorneys, Early Gray, said “We did our research, and based on our research, we chose to remove him. We felt that we had to remove him. Simple as that.” Gray had previously tried a case with Wilson presiding with no incident. However, Gray failed to elaborate on the defense team’s decision.
The notice quickly raised questions as to whether the defense attorneys’ actions were racially motivated. The St. Anthony police department, where Yanez worked, has a well-documented habit of arresting a disproportionate number of blacks. In the suburb where Castile was shot, African-Americans comprise just 5% of the population, yet accounted for 468 of 983 arrests between January and July of this year. This, along with Yanez’s behavior during and after the shooting, has already caused the case to be viewed as racially motivated. However, this most recent move by Yanez’s attorneys will likely only increase accusations of racism as long as they refuse to elaborate on their decision to remove Judge Wilson.
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